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Many travelers to Peru will overlook the sleepy fishing town of Paracas, home of the famous Islas Ballestas, and head instead to the towering Incan ruins of Cuzco’s Machu Picchu or the breathtaking expanse of Arequipa’s Colca Canyon. But insiders and locals alike know that this seaside gem is teeming with more history, natural beauty, and animal life than virtually anywhere else in the country.

The Islas Ballestas, or the Ballestas Islands, are often called the Poor Man’s Galápagos, and when you visit, you can see many of the creatures that inspired Darwin for far less than you can in Ecuador.

If you’re not sold on the Islas Ballestas yet, here are seven reasons why you must put this Peruvian treasure on your bucket list.

Humboldt penguins on the Islas Ballestas.

1. You Can Get Up Close And Personal With Phenomenal Marine Wildlife

The Islas Ballestas are home to red-billed Inca terns, sea lions, and Humboldt penguins. To see them, hop on a boat for roughly 40 soles ($12) and set sail at 8 a.m. or 10 a.m. from the port of Paracas, right off the main street.

These tours pride themselves on getting as close to the wildlife as possible without disturbing the creatures in their natural habitats, so make sure that you have your camera ready to capture all of those candid snaps of snoozing sea lions or waddling Humboldt penguins.

Keep in mind that you’ll be traveling 40 minutes out to sea in an open boat. It gets chilly out there, so bring a jacket, gloves, and a hat, as well as warm shoes.

The Paracas Candelabra in the Islas Ballestas.

2. The Ancient Bluff Carvings Are Fascinating

A big bonus of your boat ride to the Islas Ballestas is the opportunity to see the Paracas Candelabra, a massive candlestick carved into the side of a bluff. As mysterious as the Nazca Lines, the Paracas Candelabra is a relic of an ancient civilization, and nobody knows quite how it was created, or why.

Several additional lines have been discovered in or near Paracas, which has led to speculation that these formations might even predate the Nazca Lines. The Andean people who once populated the seaside region near the Islas Ballestas may have actually pioneered some of the innovative techniques used to create the Nazca Lines.

Fresh Peruvian ceviche.

3. The Ceviche Is Heavenly

Situated right on the sea, the Islas Ballestas are known for their incredible seafood, and no dish in the area is quite as famous as the ceviche. At its purest and finest, Peruvian ceviche is a combination of freshly caught fish, lime juice, and spices. The abundance of sea life near these islands makes them the ideal place to sample this delicacy.

Although the citrus juice “cooks” ceviche slightly, it’s still important to use the highest quality seafood possible to avoid any unpleasant side effects. You’ll find ceviche in Lima, Cuzco, and other Peruvian hot spots, but for the most authentic -- and safest -- version, opt for fish pulled right out of Paracas’s chilly Pacific waters.

The elongated skulls of the Paracas people.

4. You Can Learn About The Ancient People Of Paracas

If the Paracas Candelabra got you curious about the original people of the Islas Ballestas, you must visit the Juan Navarro Hierro History Museum, the best place in the country to see the remains of ancient Peruvians. These skeletons have long fascinated scientists and historians because the skulls are elongated. It’s speculated that this was done to denote higher status, and like many body-modification rituals, this practice was embraced by a specific class of Andean and Inca people.

Since all of the island tours are conducted during the morning, the Juan Navarro Hierro History Museum is a great place to spend a few afternoon hours in Paracas.

Birds along the rocks in the Islas Ballestas.

5. You Can Discover Peru’s Most Crucial Export

It might not smell very good, but it is one of Peru’s most important exports. Guano, or accumulated bird droppings, is produced by the winged creatures of the Islas Ballestas as a result of their diet of oily fish. This decidedly stinky substance is a key ingredient in fertilizer and one of the most lucrative exports Peru has to offer.

Guano is so vital to the Peruvian economy that people actually harvest it from the rocks that make up the minor islands of the Islas Ballestas. The droppings are incorporated into high-quality fertilizer and shipped all over the world.

As precious as the guano is, it’s still extremely smelly, so you might want to hold your nose while traveling past some of the islands!

The El Catador vineyard in Peru.

6. You Can Sample The Local Pisco

One of the most bitter rivalries between Peru and neighboring Chile is the battle over which country invented pisco. Although you’ll have to travel to Santiago to get the Chilean take, you can drink authentic Peruvian pisco in the Islas Ballestas.

There are plenty of pisco vineyards in the desert surrounding these islands, the most famous of which is El Catador. The vineyard offers a tour, a crash course in appreciating pisco, and a restaurant that pairs fine Peruvian cuisine with the favorite national beverage. You don’t have to venture too far from the sea to sample this pisco, though. Artisanal pisco and pisco-related drinks are on menus all over the Islas Ballestas.

You can also venture out into the desert to sample pisco from the vineyards themselves. There are plenty of tours that make pit stops at El Catador that leave straight from Paracas and can pick you up at your hotel.

The Islas Ballestas in Peru.

7. They’re Easily Accessible

If you’re flying into Peru, you’re likely landing in Lima. Lima is the cosmopolitan coastal capital of Peru, a city overflowing with nightlife, culinary delights, and plenty of eye-popping street art along the winding calles of Barranco.

The Islas Ballestas are a mere 3 or 4 hours from Lima, making a quick overnight visit from the big city a breeze. There are plenty of ways to get to the Islas Ballestas, but the easiest and most comfortable is with a company like Peru Hop. Peru Hop picks you up at your hotel and takes you straight into the city center of Paracas, the port city for the islands. The guides speak both English and Spanish.

There are public bus options as well, or you could rent a car. The gorgeous view of the coast as you cruise along is worth the trip!

The Islas Ballestas in Peru.

What To Know Before You Go

The Islas Ballestas might be located in the Pacific Ocean, but they are surrounded by desert. Bring plenty of sunscreen, even if you go when the weather is colder. Being in the Southern Hemisphere, the islands are chilliest during the months of June, July, August, and September, so be prepared for unpredictable days and cold nights if you travel during this time.

Observe proper ATM safety, especially at night. When possible, visit an ATM that is inside of a bank branch, or one in a well-lit area. Paracas, like most cities, has occasional problems with crimes of opportunity.

The animals of the Islas Ballestas might be used to humans, but it’s not a good idea to try to interact with any of them. Just like us, the sea creatures of these islands need their personal space!

Enjoy this off-the-beaten-path slice of Peru and all it has to offer before this seaside treasure hits the tourist radar!

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